Foreign Accents and IQs

I am trying to distract myself from the rolling disaster that is the Republican Party. (I am writing during the 2016 primary season.) Not that I was ever attached to the GOP. Like most political parties in our kind of democracy (“presidential”), it’s a very large bed. You have to share it with people who snore and fart, and with many others of doubtful personal hygiene. I am very attached to conservatism though. And if conservatism isn’t in the Republican Party, I don’t know where it will be. It’s the doctrine that only individual freedom matters and that everything else should be subordinated to it. In spite of many unfortunate twenty century experiments with the opposite, collectivist view, conservatism is not intuitively attractive; it requires fairly heavy intellectual lifting. If you think about it, liberals, by contrast, come in two colors: not very bright and lazy. Conservatives have to possess both brawn and brain.

To avoid obsessing with the currently obvious I am allowing my mind to drift toward the frivolous and the bemusing. There is something that’s been in the back of my brain for several years that I have not until now brought to the fore. Here it goes: I strongly dislike foreign accents in the media. I know, I know, I am an immigrant myself who speaks English with a French accent. I can’t help the latter trait but I don’t have to like it. Unfortunately, there is a widespread native-born American lapse of taste that concerns foreign accents. I cringe inside every time someone says to me, “I just love your accent.” Even when I was young and hale (an understatement, if you know what I mean) I made valiant efforts to avoid taking advantage of the detectable warming of the water that would unavoidably follow when an eager young woman first heard me. It was an uphill struggle, believe me. Sometimes, I failed to resist adequately. Believe me, I am still ashamed of it.

Now, for the profoundly monolingual among you, let me be clear: a foreign accent is a form of incompetence. It means that you learned a foreign language but not completely. It’s not as reprehensible as bad grammar, for example but it’s nothing to be proud of. Once in a blue moon, I meet someone whose first language is other than English and I don’t detect that fact in the first few minutes of conversation (in English, of course). That makes me envious. I am right to feel envious. If I were a better man, I too would have a foreign* accent that’s hard to detect. I give myself a little slack however because I read somewhere a long disquisition about this topic that kind f excuses me. The long and the short of it is this: If you don’t speak your second (or third) language with native-born speakers before you are sixteen, you will always have an accent. I was seventeen the first time I spoke English (with my mouth that is; I could write English years before that) and it was not really with native speakers but with Germans and Swedes. (You should read my memoirs; it’s in there**) So, I squeak by my own harsh judgment.

By the way, there used to be a French diplomat somewhere on the West Coast who spoke French with such a thick Serbian accent it was difficult to understand him. He had been raised Belgrade, in French but he had few opportunities as a child to speak French with French people other than his father who was himself married to a Serb. I was told the diplomat’s Serbo-Croatian was very good though also accented.

So where was I? Yes, manners, manners few of you may understand. When you tell me your love my accent, you are drawing attention to one of my shortcomings. Would you ever dream of complimenting me on my faulty spelling? Wouldn’t that be impossibly rude?

OK, I know, I am playing the innocent here. It’s possible, likely, certain even that the sound of a French accent sexually stimulates many American-born women. And in point of fact, few men ever declare they love my accent. And, if I delved into my memory, I could find instances where it evoked hostility in US-born American men. That would be because they perceive, however obscurely that they are being sexually outclassed every time I open my mouth. (No, don’t go there, please; this is a family blog!) When I first obtained a good slip in the harbor I had also just bought a new boat with unfamiliar dimensions. I thought that dock-mates and people on other docks took an unusual interest in my slip entrance procedures. I intuited some were hoping to see me crash into the dock. This guess could have been due to some underlying paranoia of mine, or it could be that I was receiving subliminal vibes from real men who had heard me speak and therefore, wished my manhood ill.

Anyway, hearing foreign accents in everyday life does not bother me at all. It’s foreign-sounding voices in the media, specifically, that I find disturbing. And first and foremost, English voices specifically really, but really annoy me. My reasons are simple: I think most people with a foreign accent (except Spanish, of course) are automatically granted unearned extra credibility points. There is even an extra credibility rating according to kind of accent: English, 20 points, Scottish, 15 points, Australian, 12 points; French, also 12 points; Dutch and all Scandinavian language, 10 points, German, 8 points; Italian: minus 5 points except when discoursing on art or on food when it becomes plus 5 points. Media types with foreign accents are thought to be better informed and to have higher IQs than native speakers of American English, I am pretty sure.

So, we have a situation where both on local radio and on network television, people who know absolutely nothing, who barely understand the material they are given to read on air are treated as automatic trustworthy sages and pundits. Some could not even land a barrista job in Manchester or in Portsmouth , or in Adelaide, or in Lyon . (that’s in France). I believe I know this form of collective blindness inside out. Two instances. I had an AM radio show for about three years. It was only two hours on Sunday morning and it reached only the San Francisco Bay Area. It was mostly about world affairs. I made it a deliberate attempt to go high-brow for an audience we knew to be mostly middle-brow or less. I believe, because of some listeners’ calls. that I succeeded to some extent in my ambitious endeavor. Other calls were from people who had no idea of what I was talking about but were sure I must be right anyway, almost certainly because of my foreign accent. (Remember, you can’t see people on radio so, it could not be my imposing physique, for example.) The accent effect is so powerful that I am 80% sure I could offer wine appreciation courses for $800 per head and be oversubscribed. I suspect that I could even tell prospects openly that I left France at age 18 , that I grew up poor drinking mediocre to bad wine mixed with water, that I spent almost all my adult life in the US, and still get recruits. (My narrow wine experience in France is also in my book of memoirs. see below.)

If you don’t believe me, watch CNN News and above all, listen. There are hours of the day when everyone on stage has some sort of British accent. And if you pay attention to the comments and to the small talk, you will soon get the impression that those were not people who came up the hard way and learned something along the way, as American media people normally do . (I am tempted to add: “even at CNN” but that would be bitchy!) At times, CNN sounds not like an American network but like a sub- BBC staffed by Britishers who went neither to Oxford nor Cambridge.

Another, more subtle feeling multiplies my irritation at what I think are imposters. Here is why. Americans are a generous people, that’s not a myth. They are not the only generous people in the world but they are right up there, in my cosmopolitan experience. One form that generosity takes is a kind of uncritical mental hospitality, a tendency to give the other guy’s opinion the benefit of doubt. In its most extreme form this tendency results in something like an assumption that the other guy can’t possibly be wrong.

Foreigners of moderate talent catch on to this quickly. They use this propensity to obtain positions their talents would not provide in their countries of origin. This does not work with car repairmen, for example, of with plumbers; it would work reasonably well with doctors because the distance between their actions and health results is often long and the path muddy. But any tendency to bluff is closed to foreign doctors by the legal obligations they take exams anew. It works very well by contrast in the media where looking the part, and sounding better than the part, is more important than walking the walk.

To me, it often feels as if uninvited parties had invited themselves to the party. dragged a little mud on the carpets, and then, taken over the kitchen.

And, in case you are wondering or snickering, I have to tell you that I, for one, was invited to this country by its legitimate government . (This is another story, of course.)

 

PS I think I am a kind of kitchen expert on foreign language acquisition. If you don’t mind having the things you have always heard on the subject challenged, you might read my essay on this blog: https://factsmatter.wordpress.com/2013/08/10/foreign-languages-and-self-delusion-in-america/

 

* “Foreign” is the right word. It’s not a dirty word. A “foreign country” is a country other than your own. The word “international” has another meaning altogether; it’s not a valid substitute. There is no such thing as an “international country,” moron. Don’t piss me off with your mealy-mouth crippling of the English language for reasons of stupid political correctness. “Foreign” is not a dirty word unless you are xenophobic. I took the trouble to learn this beautiful language, English. Why don’t you do the same?

** I Used to Be French: an Immature Autobiography (2014). This book exists in electronic form and it also exists in paperback. You can obtain the paperback from Amazon, or from me from me through this clever email address: iusedtobefrench@gmail.com. It’s listed under my name: Jacques Delacroix. I have a second book in English that is now only in electronic form. It’s entitled: Indecent Stories for Decent Women. (2015) It’s under the pen name: “Jean René Adolph.” Reflecting on its title will suggest why I am not using my real name in this one. http://www.amazon.com/dp/B018ZYR9DS

About Jacques Delacroix

I write short stories, current events comments, and sociopolitical essays, mostly in English, some in French. There are other people with the same first name and same last name on the Internet. I am the one who put up on Amazon in 2014: "I Used to Be French: an Immature Autobiography" and also: "Les pumas de grande-banlieue." To my knowledge, I am the only Jacques Delacroix with American and English scholarly publications. In a previous life, I was a teacher and a scholar in Organizational Theory and in the Sociology of Economic Development. (Go ahead, Google me!) I live in the People’s Green Socialist Republic of Santa Cruz, California.
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3 Responses to Foreign Accents and IQs

  1. roger desmoulins says:

    The trouble with your musings is that there is no received pronunciation of English (this may be true of French as well). American English is spoken with 3 common accents: drawl, twang, and north/Pacific (which is very close to Canadian). Someone said that it is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without some of his fellow English instantly disdaining him. The same is becoming true of the USA.

    • I stand educated. I don’t know how this is a “problem” though. I believe I know a non-American accent, except Canadian – anywhere any time, in my sleep. (You will have to trust that I have done the latter. It’s another story obviously, one not suitable for this family blog.)

    • roger desmoulins says:

      I began life speaking drawl, switched to Northeast, spent a generous decade living among the twang of Chicago, married a woman from the Northwest, and mix professionally and socially with Canadians and Texans. Here in New Zealand, there are Brits and Scots from all over the UK, speaking a great variety of accents. There is no received pronunciation of English. What I have discovered is that American twang has a lot in common with the accent of working class Bristol, and that American North/Canadian has a lot in common with the accent of white collar Dublin.

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